WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD - Blasphemy is an emotive topic in Pakistan, where strong religious sentiments have led in the past to mob violence and worse.
For those accused of blasphemy - which can include anything seen as a deliberate insult to God, Islam or religious leaders - such an offense is literally a life-and-death matter. The relevant section of Pakistan's penal code recommends either life imprisonment or death for any convicted blasphemer.
The issue has arisen again in Punjab, where a court last week condemned to death a Christian, Nadeem James, based on evidence police gathered from a friend who said James sent him a blasphemous poem via instant-messenger WhatsApp. A prosecutor confirmed the contention by James's defense lawyer that he never sent any blasphemous material to anyone.
“The accused said ... he never sent any blasphemous message through his cellphone,” prosecution lawyer Rana Naveed Anjum told VOA Urdu. “But once something has been alleged against you and there is enough evidence on record corroborating that assertion, then it is hard to deny or overlook such material.”
A fair trial is difficult
A prominent Pakistani human-rights activist, Mehdi Hassan, said the emotive nature of blasphemy makes it difficult to get a fair trial in cases involving religious beliefs.
“In Pakistan, religious might is very influential," Hassan told VOA, "and that thinking has an impact on police and other departments in such cases.”
Nadeem James's defense attorney, Anjum Wakeel, has said his client was "framed" by his so-called friend, "who was annoyed by [James's] affair with a Muslim girl.”
Prosecutor Anjum agreed that James told investigators he had been framed.
Feelings ran high in the case, and the trial was held in secret, in a prison, because James and members of his family had been receiving threats, some of them by local clerics.
'Blasphemy' can mask personal disputes
Blasphemy remains one of Pakistan's most controversial laws. Rights groups say accusations of blasphemy are subject to abuse, and are made to settle personal disputes or vendettas.
Activist Mehdi Hassan said the country’s political parties should play a more active role and press Pakistani society to curb the misuse of these laws.
“To address this problem as a long-term solution, political parties should play a role, because democracy gives a level playing field to everyone," Hassan told VOA.
Referring to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the revered founder of modern-day Pakistan, Hassan added: "We have to remember what Mr. Jinnah said, ‘Religious beliefs are the personal matter of an individual.'"
Jinnah was a lawyer and political figure prior to the partition of the Indian subcontinent that broke up the British Raj and created India and Pakistan as separate states in 1947. He served as Pakistan's first governor-general until his death a year later.
A history of violence
Past blasphemy cases have stirred public anger that spiraled into mob violence and killings.
In April of this year, Mashaal Khan, a journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardar, Pakistan, was beaten and shot dead by fellow students angered by accusations that he had posted blasphemous content online. In 2014, an angry mob in Punjab beat a Christian couple to death over blasphemy accusations, and in a high-profile case in 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed by his bodyguard after Taseer proposed reforms for the blasphemy laws.
Despite criticism, Pakistan's government has been advocating strict enforcement of blasphemy laws. In April the government used newspaper advertising and text messages on mobile phones to warn millions of Pakistanis not to post, share or upload “blasphemous” material online. Anyone encountering such material was asked to report it to the authorities.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report on Pakistan, ten Muslims and five non-Muslims were arrested in 2016 on blasphemy charges, and at least 19 people convicted of blasphemy were sentenced to death and are being held in prison.